Hagia Sophia: Row over ancient Turkish monument ‘a test for the country’s future’

A court battle over the use of an ancient building in Turkey is being seen as a test of the future direction of the country, an analyst says.

The use of the 1,400-year-old Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which has been a cathedral, a mosque and is now a museum, is being reviewed by Turkey‘s highest court, after a request to convert it back into an Islamic place of worship.

However, there are groups that believe that the Unesco World Heritage Site should remain as a museum, to show Istanbul’s place in the world and prevent it becoming a divisive building.

The group pressing for the structure to be returned into a mosque is seeking to overturn a decision from 1934 by the council of ministers, led by Turkey’s secularist leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which led to the Hagia Sophia becoming a museum.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of a conservative Islamic party, has previously voiced support for turning the building back into a mosque – seen as an effort to consolidate his voter base.

It is believed by western analysts that Mr Erdogan blames secularism – the separation of state and religion – for problems in his country and wants to use the Hagia Sofia to move attention away from economic issues.

Soner Cagaptay, Turkey analyst for the Washington Institute, said: “This is not just a debate about a building. Ataturk established Hagia Sophia as a museum to underline his vision of secularising Turkey.

“(Erdogan) feels the pressure of popular support dwindling and therefore he wants to use issues that he hopes will re-mobilise his right-wing base around nativist, populist, anti-elitist topics.”

He added that the Hagia Sophia issue would likely have a “temporary impact in keeping Erdogan’s base with him”.

“(But) if he does not deliver economic growth, I can’t see him winning elections as he did in the past.”

To Islamist groups, the structure is seen as a symbol of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, and these groups have objected to the building’s use as a museum.

In recent years, the government has allowed Koran readings inside the building, with Mr Erdogan reciting prayers there. This year, he oversaw a recital of the “prayer of conquest” at the site over video call.

On Tuesday, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, said that the Hagia Sophia had been a Christian place of worship for 900 years, and one for Muslims for 500 years.

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